Wind sweeps away what few leaves remain on a green field after a cold winter. No creatures are in sight, not even the birds that invisibly chirp, save for five people.
Some wear sandals despite the cool early March breeze. Others are bundled in patterned wool. One sits atop a blue and pink plaid throw, one on a textured exercise mat and one in grass that his hands continuously run through as if feeling it for the first time. Typically, the activity of choice is meditation. Not today. Today they discuss taboo topics in search of greater understanding. In search of mindfulness.
This is not some hippie camp or a group of hermits alone in the woods. The members of the University of Tennessee’s Mindfulness and Meditation Club sit on the freshly mown lawn of UT’s Circle Park, seemingly unaware of the global pandemic that rages around them.
They are not unaware. Each face is adorned with a mask and each seat is socially distanced. In a world more plagued by fear, uncertainty and mental illness than ever, these college students have found some peace.
“When hard things come at you, if you’re just doing your thing and you’re not thinking about anything, you may not know how to respond,” Mindfulness and Meditation Club Vice President Aslan Gossett said. “As we practice and try to cultivate mindfulness, through meditation often but also in our own lives by trying to remain active and aware, it can be easier to approach those things.”
Gossett dove into meditation nearly three years ago and joined the club shortly after. Though now as calm and measured a leader as C.S. Lewis’s Lion, for whom he is named, Gossett explained that he was once quick to anger before mindfulness improved his reaction to adversity. Now, the junior leads mindfulness and meditation activities to help other students with everything from time-management to finding inner peace.
“I’m going to graduate in May, and trying to figure out what comes next after graduation is extremely stressful,” Club Treasurer Gabrielle Witt said. “Meditation is something that really helps with my nerves to calm me down.”
Many of these mental benefits are not just pseudoscience or anecdotal evidence, at least not according to Psychology Today. Dr. Samoon Ahmad wrote that studies linked meditation to improved sleep, reduced anxiety, reduced depression and potentially even improved brain function.
With large influxes of new patients overwhelming mental health facilities during the pandemic, the Mindfulness and Meditation Club can be an alternative to traditional therapy. Gossett said some people fear therapy, and it can be unavailable to others. The club provides some of the same benefits as therapy in a more familiar group setting.
Members of the club practice active listening exercises and discuss mindfulness strategies in meetings, but the primary focus of the group is meditation. Meditation is a mindfulness technique, but the blanket term describes a variety of mind-clearing or focus-enhancing activities. Mantra meditation, one of the meditations practiced by the club, involves clearing the mind by focusing on a single word or phrase.
“You can listen to how it sounds, or visualize what the words look like, or even sense how the word feels in your body,” the club’s newsletter on mantra meditation reads. “Mantra can help release stress and give our minds a break.”
Meditation can seem inaccessible, or even silly, but the Mindfulness and Meditation Club offers students a path to solve their own problems and slow their lives down. In an often-chaotic world, it offers a community of peers in pursuit of peace.
“Meditating is kind of an objectively goofy thing to do,” Gossett said. “Having a group of people there who have all gathered under the same goal of practicing meditation kind of alleviates that absurdity.”
Edited by Ryan Sylvia